When Should Christians File Lawsuits?
Updated: Apr 7
Written by Jonathan M. Rosenthal
When a local Church group is prevented from buying suitable property resulting from a municipality’s zoning code, one option for remedy, which should be the last option, may be a lawsuit brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (“RLUIPA”). However, there is sometimes good faith, biblically-based resistance to litigation from within the Church. Entering into litigation should always be accompanied by open communication between Church leadership and the congregation, and sufficient time afforded to the congregation to be heard by leadership.
But does the Word of God blatantly prohibit Christians from being involved in lawsuits?
Dissenters of litigation often look to biblical lessons like 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 that call for unity. However, this biblical lesson applies to disputes among believers within the Church, for which Matthew 18 provides remedy, rather than disputes between the Church and governments. Scripture shows us that Jesus brings division between the Church and the world: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on Earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Luke 12:51. As such, unity between the Church and municipalities cannot serve as a sound biblical reason to oppose RLUIPA litigation.
The Church, however, should be united by entering into RLUIPA litigation when other avenues of remedy are unavailable. RLUIPA lawsuits are not merely battles between a group of Christians and a municipality; they are battles between spiritual principalities: “For we do not wrestle against the flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12. As members of the body of Christ, it is our duty to protect and advance God’s kingdom by engaging in Ephesians 6:12 battles.
Dissenters to litigation also claim that we should not stand up for our rights or engage in Ephesians 6:12 battles which are grounded in biblical themes like living humbly, rejoicing in suffering, and submitting to government authorities. As such, these lessons are misapplied. Was the civil rights movement arising from the church in the 20th century and the abolition movement arising from the church in the 19th Century wrong? The level of suffering caused by Jim Crow and burdensome zoning laws may be different, but the argument applies the same.
Biblical calling to live humbly does not imply apathy towards the kingdom of God. Seeking humility does not prohibit us from engaging in Ephesian 6:12 battles. Humility and lawsuits can coexist. However, the perceived correlation between pride and litigation reinforces the importance for the Church to use Christian attorneys in litigation. A Christian attorney will guide the Church through litigation by following our Shepherd.
Nor do biblical calls to rejoice in suffering prohibit us from relieving suffering or engaging in Ephesians 6:12 battles. We are not called to rejoice in suffering merely for the sake of suffering. We are to rejoice in suffering for the sake of Christ and to be strengthened in him. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Romans 5:3-5. Rejoicing in the degradation of the Church is not a Biblical lesson. Should Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have opposed the civil rights movement because Christians are supposed to rejoice in persecution? Of course not. We cannot oppose the pursuit to relieve suffering on grounds that we are to rejoice in suffering. Rejoicing in suffering does not necessitate apathy towards the Church and God’s Kingdom. We can rejoice in suffering while seeking to turn it into God’s glory.
Litigation dissenters often cite to Romans 13, as well, calling us to submit to government authorities. The glaring problem with this objection is that RLUIPA litigation is pursuant to federal law and the U.S. Constitution. When a local zoning ordinance is in conflict with federal law, the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution says that the federal law supersedes the zoning ordinance. And the U.S. Constitution is the highest law of the land. Thus, seeking to enforce federal law through the powers of the U.S. Constitution is pursuant, not contrary, to Romans 13.
Furthermore, Romans 13 does not imply that governments are incapable of overstepping their role. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” implies that God intends government to have a limited role. Mark 12:17. Thus, instances may arise when the government exercises power beyond its limited role thereby creating legitimacy for litigation against government authorities when those instances arise. A city violating federal law, and thus violating Romans 13, is one of those instances.
The Bible does not teach us to have apathy towards the Church and God’s kingdom. As Christians, we are to pursue all of Jesus’ lessons. We are to live humbly, rejoice in suffering, submit to government authorities, and engage in Ephesians 6:12 battles. We fail to realize our full fruition as citizens of God’s kingdom when we begin forgoing some of our duties out of an exaggerated sense of other duties.